Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

Brown, mixed breed dog zooming

Auf Deutsch. (German version of this post.)

There’s a video going around (there always is, right?) of an agility dog getting the “zoomies” and taking off on her own, running and jumping all over the ring without her handler.

As usual, there is plenty of discussion about it. Is the zooming dog stressed out? Or is she expressing fun and joy?

I think these are good questions to ask. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen far more stressed dogs zooming.  I think it’s rarer to see joyful, comfortable dogs who are suddenly possessed with an urge to leave their handler and run around an agility course by themselves.

I’m going to talk just a little bit about what can prompt zooming behavior. But I will focus on an issue I believe is much bigger than speculating about the dog’s inner state. Because in one important way, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is running from joy or stress.

How Zoomies Often Start

I have never seen, in a video or in person, a dog leave her handler to go running around by herself when the agility run is going well and the dog and handler are connected. I’m sure it happens—everything happens in agility. But the more typical time for it to happen is after a handler error. If you’re not familiar with agility, this can look like the dog is in error. After all, we spectators can usually tell what the next obstacle is supposed to be, and the dog is going somewhere else. But often when the dog “runs off,” she is going exactly where the handler (accidentally) sent her.

I can hear Gerry Brown, whom I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and a seminar spot with, saying, “Look at your feet!” When I looked down, they were pointing in the direction my dog was dutifully running—the “wrong” way. And I can hear my own teacher saying many times: “You sent her there.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for us beginning agility folks to grasp that the dog is often doing exactly what we indicated when they make this kind of “error.”

So zoomies often happen after we send the dog off into no man’s land. Our moves can result in the dog going off-course and then taking off like a rocket. Zoomies can also start when we ask too much of a dog. They can start when the dog is generally stressed out. They can start when we keep asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that was executed incorrectly or avoided the first time. Or sometimes they happen because we have not worked at transitioning to trial situations well enough. If the dog is not used to running without added reinforcement, she may already be suffering from lack of positive feedback and will seek alternative reinforcement.

It takes some experience, good instruction, and good observation skills to realize when we make an error. We often don’t realize it in the middle of a run, especially in competition. We think the dog made a mistake.

Off-Course Example

Here’s what it looks like when a dog goes where the handler directs her instead of where the handler intended. In this photo sequence of some backyard practice, I accidentally send Zani into a clump of weave polls in the flowerbed instead of sending her over a second jump. Yes, this was a real practice.

I have marked on the first photo where I intended for her to go. Agility folks can see that I am not positioned well, there’s not enough room, and Zani is not facing the jump.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

The subsequent photos show what happened when I didn’t turn tightly or soon enough to send her over the second jump. Miraculously, she made the first turn, no thanks to my handling. But what’s going to happen next?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence

Can you see that she now goes exactly where my gestures indicate she should go?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away

My turn is way too late! She’s already committed to the flowerbed.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

And there she goes!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

I was trying to cue a hard right turn but didn’t turn quickly enough or sharply enough. Not to mention I would have been in her way. Being an honest and truehearted girl, Zani went exactly where I asked her to!

I offer these embarrassing photos to show how common it is for the dog to be doing exactly what we asked, whether we think so at the time or not. Once they learn the basic language of agility, they speak it better than we do. If there had been no flowerbed, I would have sent Zani off into the wild blue yonder. And if this were in a trial, depending on our connection and both of our stress levels, I could have had a heck of a time getting her back.

What’s Happening If the Dog Gets the Zoomies?

So, back to the latest zooming dog video. After some consideration, I decided not to link to it here. You can easily find several on YouTube that feature what I’m discussing. Without exception, they will label the dog as having fun.

In the latest one, a possible handler error of judgment seems to prompt a disconnect between dog and handler. (The error was to repeatedly ask the dog to retry a failed obstacle.) You can see the connection starting to break. Then the dog takes off, circling the ring and doing these stupendous pronking jumps over non-jump obstacles. Most discussions I have seen about the video are about whether the dog is zooming out of stress or just having a good time. It does appear that at times she is enjoying herself.

But I put it to you that “stressed-out versus having fun” is not the question we should be asking.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Humorous picture of a woman holding an agility tunnel with a small black dog sitting inside it
Nothing to see here, folks, move along

What if we look at what the dog is actually doing rather than trying to assess her demeanor? What if we operationalize the zooming, try to describe it exactly? In the videos I have in mind, there is something most dogs are very obviously doing while also running and jumping.

They are avoiding their handlers.

The handlers beckon and call, trying to get connected enough to resume the run together. In the video I saw recently, the handler either called or beckoned to the dog 10 times during 56 seconds of zooming by my count. Unsuccessfully.

I have all the empathy in the world for that handler. I’ve been there. But being unable to recall your dog who is running around at full speed is not a joke. It’s not cute. It doesn’t need to be published as a video with cute background music.  It’s an issue of safety.

During part of that video, you can hear someone on the sidelines warning the stewards to watch the gate. That’s an excellent idea.

So as we discuss and play armchair quarterback about whether the dog is stressed or not, we are perhaps not perceiving the bigger issue. We are so comfortable speculating about a dog’s motivations. That’s familiar ground. But we are actually watching a video of an off-leash dog not responding to being called. We are seeing a failed recall cue. Repeatedly. In an environment that is not completely enclosed.

And that’s the problem with zoomies and zoomie videos. Trying unsuccessfully to get our dog’s attention in a public environment is no joke. The dog’s safety, that of other dogs, and even of people, are at risk.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

17 thoughts on “Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

  1. Eileen, I love your blogs, cos you always make me think and see things from a new or different perspective. That is real gift. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I hadn’t realized what was bugging me about the zooming videos until I thought about it for a long time! When I figured it out I had to share…. Thanks for the R+!

  2. I have a Boxer Puppy (17 mos) Boxers are the kings and Queens of Zoomies. I see lots of around the yard zoomed when I first turn out my boy in his yard on the morning. Clearly Joy and a need to run. He also can get zoomies if I confuse him on Course in Agility. I agree he disconnects or I have inadvertently disconnected I try to keep every thing calm and to be very connected and clear . It is working well

    1. Good thinking! And yes, there’s the whole other issue of puppy zoomies, AKA Frenetic Random Activity Periods. I decided to leave it out of the post, but it is related. Would love to see your pup!

  3. I have a whippet who is very prone to zoomies- usually in training but sometimes in the actual ring. She seems full of joy when she takes off and usually I am laughing too much to recall her. But not laughing so much when she does it in comp. so what IS the best way to recall your dog when she does this?

    1. I don’t have a fancy answer except to practice recalls in all sorts of situations including when she is very excited, and always give the best reinforcement ever. I know that an agility recall is a little different from just “calling the dog”–we are trying to call the dog to our side so as to restart a run–but I do like the concept of Leslie Nelson’s Really Reliable Recall. It’s an older DVD and quite inexpensive.

      Perhaps some others can chime in about this?

  4. Eileen- what we use is “Touch” and put our hand out. This gives the dog an alternative to zooming about and avoiding the handler. In addition to using it at agility I use this all the time at home with my older BC and have worked with my puppy on it since I got him at 4 months old. He is now 11 months. “Touch” becomes an almost muscle memory habit that they know they can’t break. It works every time with my adult when she really, really does not want to come. Hand out, “touch!” and she comes. It is very useful. A handler in a recent trial demonstrated this beautifully when his cocker ran out of the ring but came right back to the hand touch. Once dog returns – we party. So no negatives, no chasing the dog, no “come and sit in front of me” just “touch my hand” and let’s continue our agility fun! It does take dedication to reinforce often this behavior in various locations and circumstances but well worth it. BTW – I just discovered your blog and articles when looking up “generalizations” and am thrilled to find you and your training ideas and videos.

    1. Hi Sue–
      Very nice method and description!Thanks so much for sharing and thanks for the kind words. Hope you stick around!

  5. Great blog Eileen! Sometimes it just takes the obvious (which frequently isn’t so obvious!) being pointed out! But boy, when I think of some of my training challenges with my Wirehaired Vizsla I can see I’m am clearly not being clear with what I’m asking. Then I get frustrated and communication breaks down even more. One area that’s been exceptionally challenging is her recall. It’s like Groundhog Day with her. Every day feels like it’s the first day we’ve worked on it and I can’t seem to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

    1. I know how frustrating that can be! I bet you will get through it, though. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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